The first black woman Librarian of Congress’ favorite children’s book

CREDIT: PBS
CREDIT: PBS

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden — the first black woman to hold this position — explained why it’s so important for children of color to see themselves reflected in children’s books in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown this week.

Hayden told Brown about a children’s book that holds particular importance to her: Bright April, written and illustrated by Marguerite De Angeli and published in 1946. The book portrays a black girl’s life in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and her experiences with racial prejudice.

Hayden connected with the book as a child because she was able to relate to the main character.

She was a little African American girl who had the little socks and two pigtails and she was a Brownie. And at that time I was a Brownie, I had two pigtails, and I had a family that was reflected in this book. There weren’t many books that showed African Americans in a sympathetic way.

Hayden also showed Brown a photo of her family and explained how it reminded her of the family dinner illustration in Bright April.

“It really emphasized later when I became a children’s librarian, how children really need to see themselves reflected in books,” she said. “Books can be mirrors and they can be windows.”

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Hayden is the first woman and the first African American to head the Library of Congress. In her interview with Brown, she pointed out that being able to break these barriers is especially significant considering that slaves used to be punished harshly — and sometimes even had their fingers amputated — for trying to learn to read.

“Being the first African American really resonates because, for so many years during slavery, slaves were forbidden to learn how to read,” she said. “So to have an African-American head up the largest institution that signifies knowledge and information resonates with me quite a bit.”

Research over the years has shown that when black students see their experiences reflected in lessons and reading materials, students are more likely to be interested in the curriculum. It seems like common sense to make curricula relevant to the students engaging with it. Yet, too often, traditional representations of American history leave out or quickly pass by important pieces of history for the black community, such as the Harlem Renaissance, or fail to accurately teach the realities of slavery. Some educators also say that the literature that students are reading isn’t diverse enough.

Noah Cho, who teaches middle school English, wrote about the importance of teaching students with literature they can identify with in The Toast last year. Cho said he understands the importance of diversity in literature because he didn’t have it growing up.

I always had trouble connecting with the novels I read in high school — The Scarlet Letter, Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness — because I saw so little of myself in those works, and was in consequence less motivated to read and study them … But once I started reading works in college that spoke to me, sang to me, suddenly I couldn’t stop writing. I fell in love with literature again.

The Librarian of Congress isn’t exactly a high-visibility position, but that doesn’t mean the work the librarian does isn’t important. The Librarian of Congress has major influence over copyright — which means they have influence over the free flow of information — is in charge of choosing the U.S. Poet Laureate, and can add new sections to the Library of Congress. In her role, Hayden could choose to prioritize literature from writers of color.

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Hayden has already embraced somewhat of an activist approach to her work as a librarian — working to reclaim libraries as important public gathering spaces. When she oversaw Baltimore’s public library system, for instance, she kept libraries open even as the city declared a state of emergency following protests of the death of Freddie Gray.